9th May, 2016

Christian activists have asked for prayer for a frail Christian evangelist from Azerbaijan who has been spending a year behind bars in neighboring Georgia on what his supporters say are "trumped up charges" of drugs possession. If convicted the man could face 14 years imprisonment, Christians said.

The Azeri evangelist, who Christians have wrongly identified as "Shimon" for security reasons, denies wrongdoing. He says he has been "framed" by people who became angry about his evangelism work among Muslims. The evangelist, was detained in May last year, BosNewsLife learned.

Advocacy group Release International quoted a local source as saying that the detention has had an impact on his health. "His health is very bad and he needs urgent help - medical, spiritual and materially."

In a statement RI urged supporters to "please pray" for the "Azeri brother who is in prison in Georgia on what we strongly believe are false charges that he was in possession of drugs".

It also remained unclear if Shimon can safely return to predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan after an eventual release from prison.

"Officially, the country is secular and religion is tolerated. However, the level of surveillance is so incredibly high that Christians in Azerbaijan do not know whom to trust anymore," said advocacy group Open Doors in a recent assessment.

The group said persecution of Christians had "gone up markedly since last year due to ever-increasing government controls". "Another sign of the government pressure is the fact that Azeri Christians find it easier to evangelise in countries like Georgia and Iran than in their own country."

Yet, news of Shimon's arrest has underscored concerns that devoted Christians apparently also face difficulties in Georgia, like Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.

Authorities have not yet indicated when and if the evangelist will face prosecution.

The case comes at a sensitive time for Georgia, which has been seeking closer ties with Western institutions such as the NATO military alliance and European Union.

Protection of religious rights are among many criteria for EU membership.

- BosNewsLife